Spurred by revelations that the gunman who killed five people at an Aurora manufacturing plant in February was able to buy his weapon despite a felony conviction, Illinois Democrats are moving to extend the use of fingerprint background checks for gun buyers.
Three bills filed in the Illinois General Assembly would require authorities to collect fingerprints from people applying for state gun licenses or, alternatively, allow people seeking a state Firearms Owner’s Identification card to provide their fingerprints to the Illinois State Police as part of their background checks.
The latest was introduced this week by state Representative Kathleen Willis. It’s part of a package that would go beyond fingerprinting to also require background checks for private sales between individuals, reduce the time a FOID card is valid from the current 10 years to five before requiring a new application, and require the state police to take steps to seize weapons from people whose gun licenses have been revoked. The bill also would give the state police greater discretion to deny permits to carry concealed firearms.
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson joined a group of advocates for the measure at a news conference on Tuesday at the Thompson Center. Johnson said the legislation would “close a substantial gap . . . contributing to the illegal market and unacceptable gun violence here in the city of Chicago.”
On February 15, Gary Martin, who’d just been fired after 15 years at the Henry Pratt Company in Aurora, shot and killed five company employees, including a 21-year-old Northern Illinois University senior who was on the first day of an internship there. Martin also wounded six others, including five police officers, before being killed in a shootout with police.
The state police later acknowledged it had erroneously given Martin a FOID card in 2014 after a background check based on his name and birthdate didn’t turn up anything that would disqualify him from owning a gun.
Later, Martin applied for a concealed-carry permit and also submitted his fingerprints. The law gives people the option to do that to expedite the process. With his fingerprints, the state police found Martin sent to prison for a 1995 felony conviction in Mississippi for beating and stabbing a former girlfriend. So they revoked Martin’s FOID card.
By then, he had used it to buy the Smith & Wesson pistol he used in the Aurora shooting.
“If legislation like this had been passed before, it might have kept that gun away from this person. It might have saved lives,” said state Representative Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz.
On the same day of the shooting, Gong-Gershowitz had proposed legislation to require fingerprint background checks to obtain a FOID card.
“There’s nothing worse than feeling it’s too little, too late,” she said.
The shooting put a spotlight on what some former federal law enforcement officials and other experts say is a weakness in how millions of gun buyers a year are screened nationwide. They say fingerprints help the agencies that screen gun buyers more effectively search state and federal criminal databases to weed out people with similar names and to spot applicants who lie on a form or present a fake ID.
Under federal law, though, only buyers of particularly destructive weapons — such as machine guns — must undergo fingerprinting. At least six states have extended this to also include purchases of handguns. But in Illinois, as in most of the country, handgun buyers are checked just through basic biographical and descriptive information.
“It’s a massive hole,” said Mark Jones, a former agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who is senior policy director for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence in Chicago. “The question is: How many guns slip through it? There’s so much opacity it’s difficult to understand the scale.”
Though little research has been done on how many prohibited gun owners pass a background check for lack of fingerprint checks, research regarding employment and occupational licensing checks has found that records often are missed when checks are based on just a name and biographical information.
“Fingerprints would improve the accuracy of the system. We know that, so why aren’t we doing it?” said Joseph Vince Jr., who previously ran the ATF’s Crime Gun Analysis Branch and is a criminal justice professor at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland.
Illinois revokes thousands of gun licenses every year. But it’s rare for law enforcement to remove firearms from owners barred from having them.
In 1999, a federal task force looked at the accuracy of the FBI’s flagship criminal history records system, the Interstate Identification Index. The researchers analyzed more than 93,000 background checks done for licensing and employment purposes in Florida and found that searches using biographical information didn’t turn up nearly 12 percent of applicants with fingerprint-verified criminal histories.
That included more than 260 people who mistakenly would have been given permits to carry concealed firearms if not for fingerprinting. Those people collectively had faced charges for more than 550 offenses, including assault and robbery.
Every year, prospective nurses, teachers, taxi drivers, real estate brokers, youth sports coaches and millions of other job-seekers are screened through the index. Under federal law, they must submit their fingerprints for the check — a requirement aimed at keeping dangerous people from working with children, the elderly and other vulnerable populations.
The index is also one of the main ways used to vet gun buyers, but Congress has exempted them from the fingerprinting requirement. Democrats in Congress have tried and failed to extend fingerprinting requirements to gun buyers.
U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, and U.S. Representative Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut, proposed last year to give states grants to set up licensing systems, with fingerprinting required to get that money. Van Hollen plans to reintroduce the measure this year.
“What came out of Aurora shows that, at the very least, we should add the fingerprinting requirement to the national criminal background check process,” Van Hollen said. “Fingerprinting is required as part of the background check process for certain areas of employment, for certain occupational licenses, and that’s done to ensure the accuracy of the system, right? I’m not sure why we would want a less accurate system when it comes to keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people.”
Illinois is one of the few states where people have to obtain a license or permit before buying a handgun but don’t have to supply their fingerprints.
“We know we’re missing people, but we don’t know how bad it is because some of these prohibited gun owners don’t get caught,” said Phil Andrew, who worked for more than 20 years as an FBI agent before becoming director of violence prevention initiatives last year for the Archdiocese of Chicago. “We only know about the ones that go bad because they go bad horribly.”
Illinois State Police officials called the lack of fingerprinting a “weakness in the system,” noting that criminal records can be missed in background checks if people gave police a phony name when they were arrested: “People do not always give law enforcement accurate identifying information.”
The Illinois State Rifle Association didn’t respond to requests for comment. After the Aurora shooting, it called the idea of requiring fingerprints for gun ownership “an out-and-out attack on the Second Amendment.”
Last month, state Senator Julie Morrison filed an amendment to extend the amount of time the state police have to decide whether to grant a FOID card application from 30 days to 90, allowing that to be cut to 60 if an applicant agrees to provide fingerprints.
Morrison said she is considering revisions to bring her legislation in line with the bill filed Monday by Willis that would make fingerprinting mandatory.
Both proposals would require private gun transactions to be conducted through a licensed dealer and do more to try to ensure that people whose FOID cards are revoked surrender their weapons.
“Fingerprinting increases our ability to look at records in other states, so it’s a huge advantage and one I think Illinois needs to seriously look at,” Morrison said.
Lawmakers are taking taking cues from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, which said in a recent report that stricter licensing laws have been associated with drops in gun trafficking and firearms-related deaths and made several recommendations for Illinois.
Cassandra Crifasi, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who co-authored the report, said fingerprinting is an inconvenience but provides “another layer of information to screen out prohibited people.”
Maryland began requiring fingerprinting in 2013 and requires four hours of safety training before anyone can obtain a license to buy a handgun.
Crifasi said she completed the training one evening after work at a gun store where she submitted her application online, pressing her fingertips onto a pad to provide her fingerprints. She said her license arrived about a month later.
“I didn’t think it was a big hurdle,” said Crifasi, who owns several handguns and is a regular at a gun range. “In the grand scheme of things, it isn’t that much to ask to make sure it’s a little bit harder for people who shouldn’t have guns to get them.”